Hundreds protest Washington Gov. Inslee’s vaccine mandate

Hundreds of people gathered at the state Capitol in Olympia on Saturday to protest Gov. Jay Inslee’s vaccine mandate.

The mandate, which Inslee announced in early August, requires most state workers, healthcare workers and school employees to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 or face losing their jobs. Inslee has said the getting people vaccinated is essential for getting Washington past the pandemic.

Organizers of the rally Saturday warned that a large segment of state workers, including many firefighters, sanitation workers and bus drivers, won’t get the vaccine — as much as 30% to 40% statewide, they said. It wasn’t clear what that estimate was based on.

"If the Governor refuses to rescind his mandate, it will mean that multiple areas of the state will be severely reduced or shut down completely," Tyler Miller, of the group Liberty, At All Hazards, said in a news release. "The Governor is unnecessarily threatening the genuine safety and well-being of the citizens of Washington if he forces his mandate to stand."

The governor’s office did not immediately return an email seeking comment on the demonstration.

The Washington Federation of State Employees on Thursday sued to block the mandate in Thurston County Superior Court, saying the state failed to bargain over the issue in good faith. The lawsuit says allowing the mandate to take effect without an agreement with the union would harm the rights of the union’s members. Inslee’s office says he disagrees.

"Our union’s top priority is health and safety — for staff and the public we serve," union President Mike Yestramski said in a news release. "That is why we need the state to make a good faith effort to bargain and to really think through how they’re going to implement this mandate in a safe, fair and consistent manner."

That includes coming up with processes for how workers can qualify for exemptions for religious or medical reasons and for dealing with staffing concerns, he said.

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Inslee’s mandate is among the strictest in the country. It does not allow for employees to show proof of negative COVID-19 tests in lieu of getting vaccinated.

In Oregon, an outbreak at a long-term care facility in Springfield began with an unvaccinated worker, public health officials said. That outbreak resulted in dozens of infections and five deaths.

In California, public health officials said Friday that 22 children contracted COVID after an unvaccinated elementary school teacher took off her mask to read to students.

But many employers have voiced concerns that the mandate could prompt workers to quit.

Vaccination rates across the state have risen since the mandates were announced, which also came amid a steep rise in cases and hospitalizations caused by the highly infectious delta variant.